Reporting Covid-19

How the Pakistani media has dealt with the pandemic story

The news industry in Pakistan has almost always been challenged, either by the nature of the stories covered or the circumstances it finds itself in while covering those stories. With the coronavirus pandemic, the industry is faced with an unprecedented situation. The story has been making headlines across newspapers and on primetime television since it hit Pakistan last month. But how has the media dealt with the story?

Primetime news shows have been featuring the story in at least one segment over the past weeks. “Our focus is on generating awareness. We don’t want to cause panic or speculate too much, which is why we rely on government data,” says Syed Wahid Ashraf, the senior producer for content at the news show Dunya Kamran Khan Kay Saath on Dunya News. From subjects on China’s efforts to contain the virus and Pakistan’s preparedness (before the outbreak) to impact on the global economy, the show has touched various aspects since late February. It even ran an Urdu-subtitled WHO package on how to wear masks. “One of the main questions of our coverage was: are we prepared?”

Since the show runs on a 90-minute slot, it has the luxury of adding segments which other shows are left struggling to justify in their 60-minute run. For Ashraf’s team, one challenge is to decide if a story falls in their 9:30pm to 10pm slot or the 10pm to 11pm slot – nominally the more important part of the show. The story has made it to the latter part (10pm to 11pm) of the show ever since the virus hit Pakistan.

“We didn’t cover it till the pandemic hit Pakistan because there was only so much we could add to the debate given there was no investigative journalism being done,” says Asad Ali Toor, senior producer of the news show Sawaal on Samaa TV. The ratings also played a role in the decision-making, he adds. “Our biggest test is to balance the need to generate awareness through authentic information by asking the right questions without causing panic,” he says.

Dr Taneer Ahmed, a health reporter at Samaa Digital, says their newsroom debate has largely focused on ways to help people during the pandemic. “Getting the data from the government is a challenge because if we don’t get reliable information it becomes dangerous,” she says. In February, her organisation launched a Twitter handle, Samaa Health (@HealthSamaa), to bring sourced information and updates. Since its launch, the account has gained around 2,000 followers. “We wanted to bridge the gap between healthcare experts and the public.” Besides news updates and short informative videos and infographics, the account has initiated a competition inviting children and parents to share activities they are doing at home during self-isolation.

As far as gathering reliable information is concerned, reporters are finding the task increasingly challenging, especially in the Punjab. Sher Ali Khalti, a Lahore-based reporter for The News, says there is reluctance on part of the government to share “any information”. “The provincial government’s almost absolute silence leaves us clueless.”

Umme Farwa, a Lahore-based correspondent for Geo News, shares the same concern. “We are left scrambling for information. The provincial government is not speaking to us and the hospitals are not allowed to. How do we verify and report facts?”

Then there is the matter of newsroom policies on sensitive issues. A reporter who has been covering the pandemic in Karachi claims that initially the extent of the virus in China was not being reported locally. “I had pitched a story about a Pakistani [female] student stranded there when the issue had not made much noise. It wasn’t approved. The policy was to not report on these issues. That policy changed when Pakistan reported its first case.”

In a competitive industry where broadcast newsrooms are left battling with one another for ‘breaking news’, reporters in the field are expected to attract eyeballs – even if that means risking their safety.

“Newsrooms pushed reporters to give live hits from outside hospitals where suspected cases were admitted. None of us [reporters] were briefed about safety,” recalls a reporter for a news channel. “Later, I was told that I should be thankful that hospitals weren’t allowing media inside their premises. Else, I would have been expected to do that as well.”

According to Reporters Without Borders, at least three journalists – two from 24 News HD and one from Abb Takk – have tested positive for coronavirus in the Punjab. The RSF has called on the Pakistani media to “temporarily close their bureaus for the sake of the health of their staff”.

Mohsin Naqvi, chief executive officer of 24 News HD, in a tweet on March 22 confirmed that a colleague had tested positive adding: “We are investigating the possibility of further infections by testing and will quarantine a few staff members. We have and will continue to ensure that all precautions possible are taken”.

Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, in a statement said that reporters’ health should be a priority for media houses. “Everything must be put in place so that they can work from home and avoid any potential source of infection.”

Some newsrooms are allowing some of the staff to work from home while others are asking their field staff to not go to hospitals where cases have been reported. Safety gloves, masks and sanitisers are also being provided to field journalists. In some organisations, thermal scanners are also being used at entrances and exits to monitor body temperatures.

Fatima Ali, the Lahore correspondent for Independent Urdu, is currently operating remotely. During the recent surge her newsroom told its employees to avoid ‘unnecessary’ field visits. “The challenge is for local television reporters who are forced to bring something for TRPs.” Recalling her experience at a local channel where she covered the dengue fever outbreak in the Punjab, Ali says she contracted the disease while reporting. “Not once did my then-employer inquire about my health.”

Ali says the situation needs to change. “Newsrooms will need to adapt and think of new strategies. If reporting facts is vital for journalism so is the safety of journalists.”

The writer is a staff member

How the Pakistani media has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic story